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Book Review, Books

Book Review – Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

Lightning Rods AOS coverLast week in 2012 – My Year in Books I revealed my six personal favourites.  Today, for my final review of the year I’ve chosen one of the most memorable books I’ve read, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which took an entire decade to find a publisher before being released by New Directions in the USA in October 2011 and by And Other Stories, an independent not-for-private-profit publisher, a year later in the UK.  I am one of their subscribers.

I was lucky to come to Lightning Rods with no knowledge of the premise – or the author. Helen DeWitt was born near Washington DC, grew up in South America, has several Oxford degrees and currently lives in Berlin. Her first novel The Last Samurai (2001) achieved critical acclaim and is by all accounts very different. When I read Lightning Rods I was extremely ambivalent about it and as it’s impossible to discuss without revealing the subject, I waited to see how others would go about it. Two months later, I have read many other reviews (which I don’t normally) and clearly, the cat’s out of the bag.

Stop reading now if you are easily offended. Helen DeWitt doesn’t pull any punches so I won’t either.

This is a short and quick read and doesn’t feel much like a novel, lacking some of the key components such as dimension, emotional depth and character development. That would normally be quite an indictment, but less so if you take this for what it is – a very clever and trenchant satire.

It’s a third person narrative and from the word Go we’re in the mindset of failed salesman Joe, a man in his early 30s. As the story opens he is spending all day in his trailer indulging in outlandish masturbatory fantasies, frustrated that pornography doesn’t cater to his rather specific requirements. He gets the idea of combining his professional aspirations and sexual tastes by providing a service to relieve the major problem (we’re told) of sexual harassment in the workplace caused by excess male libido. Initially, after much difficulty, he persuades a single employer to try it out.

Here we go…. Joe hires women who appear to be regular office workers but are paid extra to secretly double as ‘lightning rods’ to allow the release of this troublesome sexual tension. The disabled toilets separating the men’s and women’s facilities are modified allowing high-achieving male executives to have anonymous sex from behind with the unclothed lower half of a lightning rod’s body which is delivered through a customized hole in the wall. The man then returns refreshed to his desk and to the tasks in hand. Joe frequently compares this ‘physical outlet’ with using the toilet.

Nice.

It takes a long time to set all this up and I found the first third or so of the book so degrading and offensive that I very nearly abandoned it. I eventually became slightly desensitized to it; very clever and subtle of the author to engineer such a response in the sceptical reader when the whole purpose of the book is to satirise the way almost anything, no matter how outrageous, can be normalized and become socially acceptable if couched in the right terms. Joe’s idea is scaleable. It takes off in a big way.

As early commentators were quick to observe, the genius of this book lies in its exposure of the power of language to achieve such ends. It would be impossible not to notice that Joe’s speech and thought patterns are half cliché, half marketing jargon, which from a reader’s perspective is 50% hilarious and 50% borderline unbearable. He truly believes his own hype. He walks the talk. You get the picture. It’s a brilliant send-up of the kind of American who wears a company T shirt on vacation and is really just waiting to find someone he can bore with his annual sales figures.

I have a strong interest in American language and culture and write (fiction) in both British and American English, so once my initial revulsion had waned I did find much of the second half very funny. There are some priceless comic moments when Joe manages to outwit the FBI and to convince the Christian Right that the Lightning Rod scheme is the lesser of two evils. There’s a completely ludicrous and very un-PC strand to the story involving a ‘dwarf’ named Ian.

Lightning Rods isn’t, as it may first appear, a satire on sexual or workplace politics. OK, so maybe it doesn’t set out to be either of those things, but I think it’s a cheap trick to take as a starting point such a controversial premise and fail to address – satirically or otherwise – the issues it raises and leaves hanging. The fact that the objectification of women and women’s sexual needs are more in the spotlight now than when the book was written only heightens this. For me, it wasn’t offset by the implication that men are primitive creatures incapable of getting through the working day without a quick fuck to keep them on the straight and narrow; neither was I at all sure what to make of Joe’s star lighting rods Renee and Lucille going on to become senior figures in the legal profession, achieving a level of success and education which wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t taken part. Er, it’s still prostitution. This smacks of the argument that women who appear in pornography are actually the ones exploiting men. I’m sure I’m not supposed to be thinking that, but all writers have to contend with the problem that authorial intention is just part of the equation and readers’ interpretations can’t be controlled.

In the end, I disliked and enjoyed it in equal measure. It is highly debatable in both senses, and I do think controversial books can be a good thing. I’ve told countless people about this one and watched their mouths fall open in disbelief.   It would be fascinating to see how it would be received by a wider audience. Fortunately for And Other Stories, Helen DeWitt has dual US/UK nationality and they have made no secret of their intention to put this title forward for next year’s Man Booker Prize. The 2012 Prize was notable and slightly dull for the absence of the traditional controversy.  If Lightning Rods gets anywhere, I don’t think that’ll be a problem…

Have you read Lightning Rods? Do you want to?

*POSTSCRIPT*

And Other Stories have gained a lot of attention this year as publishers of Deborah Levy’s Booker shortlisted novel Swimming Home and will be releasing a collection of her short fiction, Black Vodka, in February 2013.  It’s one of several anthologies I’ll be looking at in a Short Fiction Special that month.

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “Book Review – Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

  1. It will indeed be interesting to see if it makes a splash in the Mann Booker. Your description of the book reminds me a little of one (title wiped from my memory) by Michel Houellebecq I read a number of years ago, also a satire containing lots of anonymous sex. It was too much of a struggle for me to get beyond the descriptions of the mechanics (and the awareness that the person sitting next to me was probably reading it over my shoulder) to be able to appreciate its satirical qualities. It is also very difficult to see past the objectification of women in any scenario of that nature. I fear I’ll not be adding this one to my list!

    Posted by rowena | December 3, 2012, 10:32
  2. It sounds like Margaret Attwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” without the social comment. Incidentally, did you know there’s an ancient Jewish custom of making love through a hole in a sheet to save the bride’s blushes?

    Love,

    Vijayadipa xxx

    Posted by Valerie Witonska | December 3, 2012, 11:25
  3. I’d heard of this, but only because I so loved Patrick deWitt’s ‘The Sisters Brothers’ that I googled him and she got mixed up in the results. I had no idea it was about that – sounds very interesting. I too was thinking of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ while reading your blog. Very tempted to read it, if only to be able to discuss it with others. Would be a great topic to have up your sleeve at a dull party …

    Posted by isabelrogers | December 3, 2012, 15:29
    • Please do read it because I’d love to discuss with people who have. As a topic of conversation I thoroughly recommend LR. Nearly made some very liberal American dinner guests choke on their roast pork! beats house prices…

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 3, 2012, 15:51
  4. Did the gender of the author colour your reaction to the novel? If it had been a male author writing would you have been less patient with the objectification and misogyny? As the author was female did you think that this is just a provocatively extreme view of a male psyche?

    It sounds like a very thought-provoking novel and I think I’d be interested to read it to see how authentic the voice seemed to me, although I tend to think there is less innate difference between male and female thinking in this regard than societal and cultural norms would lead one to believe (as you allude to in your review with your comments about novels on women’s sexual needs).

    I’m trying to write the internal thoughts of a male character who both views the women he knows in a sexual way but also completely respects them professionally and intellectually. He sounds very different from this protagonist but it’s a difficult line to tread in terms of narrative voice.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | December 4, 2012, 11:20
    • You ask some very searching questions (which is good)! I will do my best to answer. I am by no means the only person to say this but I wonder if the book would have been considered publishable if it was written by a man. If it had been, given my reaction to it early on, that would probably have been the final straw and I would have stopped reading. As it is, I do feel very uncomfortable about it being written by a woman and NOT addressing the issues I mentioned in the review. Like me, you sound interested in the sexual politics side of it and I didn’t feel it had anything much to say on that score. It is such a caricature that I didn’t perceive Joe or indeed the other men in the book as representing real men any more than the lightning rods represent real women. The satire, and the strength of it, lie elsewhere.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 4, 2012, 12:04
      • Maybe the sexual politics part isn’t meant to be satire. Perhaps that’s what she thinks men are like? I suspect some of the corporate alpha male types may well be – but not all of us.

        Posted by Mike Clarke | December 4, 2012, 12:49
      • Maybe reading one of the interviews the author has given would shed some light on this. I deliberately don’t read interviews (or reviews, usually) before writing my own reviews as I think a book needs to stand up by itself.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | December 4, 2012, 13:06

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